22 security personnel killed in the Naxal-State attack in Jonaguda village in Chhattisgarh’s Bijapur district reflects the era of violence between the Maoists and the State from the 1980s to the early 2000s in the heart of India. As worrying as the issue between the State and the Maoists (or as they call them, Naxalites) may sound, its vindications are more wrangling.
Here’s a look at what led to the embroilment of violence, the history of Naxalism, how the State ignored the fundamental issues of the tribals and in turn favoured Multi-National Corporations (MNCs), and the media’s role in bridging the stigma around the issue.
Naxalbari, West Bengal
In 1967, peasants of Prasadujot, an isolated village in the Naxalbari area of West Bengal led a violent movement against the landlords who had forcefully held their legally entitled lands. A violent exchange between the peasants led by left-wing activists Kanu Sanyal and Jangal Santhal, and supported by Charu Mazumdar against the police (who supported the landlords) gave birth to the Naxal movement in rural India.
With the fire ignited in Naxalbari, the already flourished Communist wave in India was growing intense. Young minds around the country started to traverse the deep connectivity of the peasantry movement in China led by Mao Zedong and that in India’s heart- its villages.
Before Naxalbari, armed peasants’ rebellion in the Telangana region of the then princely state of Hyderabad in the early 1950s and other similar movements brought the Communist Party Of India (CPI), India’s second oldest national party to the forefront of national politics. CPI had powerful public movements in Manipur, Tripura, Kerala, Bihar, and notably, West Bengal.
CPM and CPI
The Communist Party Of India was the primary communist party in India. It shadowed the global communist movement in the country. In the early 60s, cracks began to develop among the members of the CPI in anticipation of the Sino-China border dispute of 1962. The majority of the members voiced their opinion in favour of Nehru’s policies, whereas a certain section of leaders expressed discontent with India’s stand against Mao’s socialist China. These opposing tendencies became so acutely polarised that the pro-China section of the party eventually left the CPI in 1964 and formed the Communist Party of India (Marxist), CPI(M) or CPM.
In the following years, with mutual disagreements on issues about the medium of rebellion against the state, the CPM was further split into two sections- one supported the revolutionary peasants’ movement in Naxalbari and other regions, while the other dominant section was against the left-wing adventurism of the Naxalbari activists.
This fall of opinion among the CPM led to the formation of the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) (CPI-ML) and it declared open allegiance to China and Mao Zedong’s thought and announced that its primary goal was to overthrow the Indian state through an armed uprising of the Indian peasantry, that would liberate the rural areas from its class enemies (the landlords, police force, etc.)
Fast Forward To The State And MNCs
The Communist Party of India (Maoist) was formed in September 2004 through a merger between the Communist Party of India (Marxist–Leninist), People’s War Group (PWG), and the Maoist Communist Centre of India (MCCI).
The Maoist Communist Centre (MCC) had tremendous support in Bihar and the then newly formed state of Jharkhand. People’s War Group (PWG) had its background in Andhra Pradesh. Over a million people had attended one of its rallies in Warangal.
It was in 2006 when the then Prime Minister of India, Dr. Manmohan Singh referred to the Naxalites as “the single biggest internal security challenge” for India. He also said that the “deprived and alienated sections of the population” form the backbone of the Maoist movement in India.
Things that did not come out to the populace at large were how the State and the MNCs of India had deprived the tribals in the heart of Bihar, Orissa, and other states of their basic rights and needs. This was the section of the population that PM Singh called “deprived and alienated”.
The State And The MNCs
Activists from Orissa filed a case against Vedanta in the Supreme Court pointing out that the Norwegian Pension Fund has withdrawn its investments from the project, citing human rights violations.
A special bench comprising Chief Justice K. G. Balakrishnan, Justice Arijit Pasayat, and Justice S. H. Kapadia headed the case. The bench declined permission to Vedanta to mine bauxite for its aluminium project in Orissa but allowed Sterlite Industries, the sister company of Vedanta to extract the mineral in collaboration with state agencies (the Orissa government and the Orissa Mining Corporation). Reports flooded in the media that one of the reasons that Sterlite was given permission was because Justice Kapadia had shares in Sterlite. Earlier, the Supreme Court’s expert committee had denied the permission for mining as it would ruin the ecosystem of the region.
In late 2005, the situation in Bastar was at a critical stage, with clashes on and off trying to force land acquisition for Tata’s steel plant. The “manufactured civil war” pursued by Salwa Judum continued with at least 80,000 tribal refugees in what were virtually concentration camps.
In 2005, Tata signed an agreement for a steel plant with the Chhattisgarh government. The plant was planned to be developed on 2,000 hectares of tribal land belonging to 10 villages in Lohandiguda. During the days around the final signing of the agreement, Salwa Judum was formed by Mahendra Karma in a secret meeting of Mukhiya in Kutroo village. It was labelled as a people’s movement against the Naxalites but in reality, it was a police-sponsored militia forcing the evacuation of one tribal village after another. The then BJP CM Raman Singh announced that those who did not move to the camps would be considered “Maoists”. An ordinary villager, living an ordinary life became an equivalent to a danger to the state.
Between June and December of 2005, the Salwa Judum burned, killed, raped, and looted hundreds of villages in South-Dantewada, Bijapur, and Bhairamgarh blocks. Why these areas in particular? This is because these regions were the proposed locations for Essar Steel’s new plants.
Why would members of the Salwa Judum hang around killing and looting people in areas where companies like Tata and Essar had their proposed plants? The reason for this was noted in a draft report on State Agrarian Relations and the Unfinished Task of Land Reform (Volume 1). The report said that Essar Steel and Tata Steel were the first financiers of Salwa Judum.
As this government report came out in the press, it created a fire among the masses. When the final report was tabled, subsequently, this chapter was dropped from it.
Tata And The State, Again
In October 2009, in a mandatory public hearing for one of Tata Steel Plants in Lohandiguda where participation from the locals was invited, a hired audience of around 50 villagers was brought in a “guarded government convoy”, that was in a small hall miles away from the actual meeting place.
After the meeting, the District Collector congratulated the “villagers” for their support, and reports in the local newspaper reported the same lie (the same newspaper was filled with advertisements).
In 2008 and 2009, the Ministry of Panchayat Raj commissioned two reports. One of its chapters titled “PESA, Left Wing Extremism, and Governance: Concerns and Challenges in India’s Tribal Districts” authored by Ajay Dandekar and Chitrangada Choudhary.
The report concluded that:
“The MOUs [Memorandums Of Understanding] signed by the state governments with industrial houses, including mining companies should be re-examined in a public exercise, with gram sabhas at the centre of this inquiry.”
A government report citing worries on the industrial complex between the state and companies was something to worry about. As a result, in April 2010, at a formula ceremony, the PM released the report with only one thing missing- the chapter citing the re-examination of MOUs was removed.
In 2010, the police surrounded several thousand protestors who were protesting the takeover of their land by the Tatas, Jindals, and POSCO (Pohang Iron and Steel Company).
All this state-sponsored violence, involvement of Salwa Judum was informally (or formally) done under the government’s “Operation Green Hunt” authored by Palaniappan Chidambaram.
Maoists And Violence
In April of 2010, in Dantewada, the Maoists’ People’s Liberation Guerrilla Army (PLGA) ambushed a Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) company and killed 76 policemen. The same CRPF battalion was patrolling tribal areas with 21 AK-47s, 38 INSAS rifles, 7 self-loading rifles, 6 LMGs, 1 Sten gun, and 2-inch mortars. Their reasons? Unknown.
In May of the same year, the Maoists blew up a bus in Dantewada killing 48 policemen, out of which 18 were Special Police Officers (SPOs) and members of Salwa Judum.
Over the years, the Maoists have planned and executed several big-scale attacks on the forces. The reason for this violence is their years of repression, violence, torture, and land grabbing by the State and the people at power.
In her book ‘Walking Through The Comrades’, Arundhati Roy shares the story of some Maoist leaders.
“Comrade Rinki’s village Korma was attacked by Naga Battalion and Salwa Judum in 2005. Rinki alongside her friends Lukki and Sukki were members of the Krantikari Adivasi Mahila Sangathan. The battalion burned the village and caught Lukki and Sukki and one other girl. They gang-raped them on the grass and then killed them. But now that the Naga Battalion has gone, the police come. They come when in their need of eggs, chicken and, women”
In another tale,
“Comrade Sumitra joined the PGLA in 2004. She wanted to leave her house because she saw that women were controlled in all walks of life. Sumitra says, in her village, girls were not allowed to climb trees; if they did, they would have to pay a fine of INR 500. If a man hits a woman and she hits him back, she has to give the village a goat. Women are not allowed to eat eggs.”
One of the members of a Maoist group tells a story of a police raid where hundreds of policemen raided villages at night and arrested people. They then extract money from them before releasing them. Also, they carry “Naxal Uniforms” in case they find someone to kill. They are rewarded for killing Naxals, so they manufacture some Naxalites.
Media’s Role In The Movement
Largely, the impression of the Maoists and State battles has been accentuated by the media. Reports in the past (and maybe today too) are intended with the name game and calling areas as “Maoist-Infested”, as in they are implied as diseases or pests which can “only infest”.
Arundhati Roy in her book ‘Walking With The Comrades’ in a conversation with a Maoist member tells that:
“Kotrapal, you must have heard about it. It has been burnt 20 times for refusing to surrender. When the members of the Salwa Judum reached there, a village militia was waiting. Three Judum goons were killed and the militia captured 12 of them. But the newspapers reported that the Naxalites had massacred dozens of poor adivasis.”
Various notable national news channels ran reports that named the Maoists as “Naxalvad Cancer”, “Naxali Bharat Ki Zameen May Jadde Jamaa Chuke”, “Naxali Sarkari School Todd Kar Apni School Bana Rahe” (The Naxals have demolished government schools and are building their own) and many other statements. The Press Trust of India (PTI) ran false news articles which talked about Maoists mutilating the bodies of security personnel they have killed. The same story was followed by the Indian Express.
In a detailed research paper, Pritam Singh writes that:
“The Maoists took up the issue of fixing the price of the Tendu leaves (used in making biddi) from INR 2 to INR 100 per bundle. Also, the ‘Janata Sarkar’ by them runs the health camps, rural credit society, seed bank, etc. They also introduced gender-sensitive reforms among the adivasis.”
While the administration slept, cadres were digging wells, paying for repairs of hand pumps, installing new ones, and creating water reservoir sources.
When the fourth pillar of democracy largely failed in showcasing the other side of the problem, they successfully brainwashed the populace with its aggressive ‘ground reporting’ and sensational news writings.
Politics And What The Future Holds
To date, hundreds of policemen and thousands of tribals in the name of being Maoists are killed. From the 1950s to 2021, violence has been running an upstream-downstream cycle.
Arundhati Roy describes her conversation with two paramilitary commandos on the deaths of security personnel in an ambush. She notes:
“Their view on what is going on involved neither grief nor patriotism. It was simple accounting. A balance sheet. They were talking about how many hundreds of thousands of rupees in bribes it takes for a man to get a job in the paramilitary forces, and how most families incur huge debts to pay that bribe. That debt can never be repaid by the pathetic wages paid to a jawan, for example. The only way to repay it is to do what policemen in India do – blackmail and threaten people, run protection rackets, demand pay-offs, do dirty deals. (In the case of Dantewada, loot villagers, steal cash and jewellery.) But if the man dies an untimely death, it leaves the families hugely in debt. The anger was directed at the government and senior police officers who make fortunes from bribes and then so casually send young men to their deaths. They knew that the handsome compensation that was announced for the dead in the attack was just to blunt the impact of the scandal. It was never going to be standard practice for every policeman who dies in this sordid war.”
Every attack against the Maoists possesses a life-or-death situation in front of the security personnel. Someone who dreamt of serving the country for the good is stuck in the battles of the politicians, MNCs, and the tribals or Maoists who after years of Independence have no access to basic education, health, and security.
Over the years, be it the Congress or BJP or the state or central governments, they have declared war on these vulnerable tribals who have been exploited mercilessly for decades by forest department officials, small businessmen, and money lenders. When they tried to answer in the way they were exploited, an all-out war played by the police and other security officials on the orders of the government was drawn upon their houses and families.
In 2006, the Raman Singh government appointed Kanwar Pal Singh Gill, the IPS officer who is credited with having brought the Punjab insurgency in the 80s and 90s under control as the special security adviser. He quit in a short stint, alleging he was told to “sit back and enjoy his salary”.
An online article states that Israel’s Mossad was training 30 high-ranking Indian Police Officers in target assassination. Also, in early 2009-10, there were talks in the media that some weapons that are used by the US Army, exported by Israel will also be used in ‘counter-insurgency operations’.
In June 2010, the Indian government launched two operational doctrines: the Joint Air-Land doctrine and the Military-Psychological doctrine.
According to PTI, the doctrine on Military Psychology operation is a policy planning document that aims to create a conducive environment for the armed forces to operate by using the media available with the services to their advantage.
In an editorial in the Indian Express, a senior IPS Officer pinpoints the possibility of holding talks between the government and Maoist leaders. He says,
“Debates about negotiating with insurgents and terrorists are often met with anger and, at times, disgust, at the possibility of sitting across a table from individuals who were responsible for some horrific violent acts.”